The subtitle of Rebecca Stott’s memoir In the Days of Rain is A Daughter, a Father, a Cult. “Growing up in and escaping a cult” memoirs have been a minor theme of my reading. I think (look away, Mom and Dad!) I’m drawn to them in part because of my own family history: my dad went to an Episcopal seminary when I was 13. I’m not saying it’s a cult (I’m still an Anglican!) but grappling with the ways your parents’ faith can upend and shape your own life, well, that’s an interesting story to me.
Stott was the fourth generation of her family to belong to the Exclusive Brethren, or as, one of her cousins says, be “caught up in them.” Stott ponders this phrase:
Caught up like a coat catching on thorns. Caught up in a scandal. Caught up in the arms of the Lord. Whichever way you phrased it, it meant you didn’t get to choose, and there was no getting away.
The Brethren were (are) a separatist Christian sect that believed the world was under Satan’s control and encouraged its members to have as little as possible to do with that world. In the 60s, the period of Stott’s early childhood, it became increasingly separatist and cult-like, forcing members to “withdraw” from professional associations, university education, and family members who were not part of the Brethren–or the right sub-division of the Brethren. In response to what he later called “the Nazi years,” her father, who had become a leader in the sect, eventually decided to leave. And so the family entered a strange new world, one where TV, radio, music and books were allowed. Where Darwin wasn’t excised from the encyclopedia. And where not every question has an answer, something Rebecca finds both frightening and liberating.
Stott divides her book into three parts: Before, which recounts her family and the Brethren history, and how those intertwined; During, her early childhood and the divisions that wracked the Brethren during those years; and Aftermath, a title suggested by her daughter, and which seems more apt to her than After, because really, they never stopped dealing with the fallout of their time in the Brethren. The first section was interesting but sometimes I bit dry or impersonal, and the book really takes off in the later sections.
Stott describes how the language and doctrines she absorbed during endless Brethren meetings shaped her childish imagination:
Because I knew I’d be left behind [in the Rapture], I spent much of my childhood preparing for the Tribulation. My dreams were full of floods and lighting and earthquakes. Most of the games I played had boats in them. . . . During those long hours spent listening to biblical exegesis in meeting, I could take myself to the imaginary salty, spice-scented hold of my boat or into the whale’s belly as if they were parallel worlds.
The threat of being left behind terrified the child Rebecca, as it had her father and other former members of the group she spoke too. Falling asleep, she heard voices and saw demonic visions. The adults were frightened of the sect’s increasingly rigid rules, of the threat that if you transgressed in any way, you would be “withdrawn from,” your family refusing to eat with or speak to you. During the “Nazi years,” suicides were not uncommon.
But the world outside the Brethren is frightening too, so many new experiences to navigate without the certainty of rigid rules. The children can’t just shrug off the beliefs that their parents have drummed into them for years, and are bewildered by how quickly things change. Stott’s most beautiful writing, I thought, came in her account of the ways she learned to understand and enjoy her new, wider world–for example, when she finally, fearfully reads about the forbidden Darwin:
The world of flowing and endless forms that Darwin described made a dazzling counterpoint to the rule-bound, black-and-white, Manichaean, sin-obsessed, flesh-loathing world of the Brethren. Darwin’s version of a world in infinitely slow flux became a kind of poem that I’d keep coming back to for the next forty years. In this version of the world, nothing had purpose or design. Nothing drove or judged us. It was neither cruel nor kind, neither good nor bad. But it was a kind of miracle.
And what about her father, who shares equal billing in that subtitle with the Brethren and Rebecca? Her memoir is prompted by his own, left incomplete at his death. She puts off work on the project until figuring out she needs to make it her own story, not his. But it is an attempt to understand him as much as to understand how the Brethren affected her–indeed, how can her father be disentangled from her faiths, whether in the impending Rapture, or later in books, culture, ideas? He was her source for both. (Oh, Rebecca, I get it). He’s at the center or her story. When she picks up the jar with his ashes, she’s astonished by how small it is:
he was so big. He’d stand in my kitchen reciting poetry or explaining why Poliakoff was the second-greatest playwright currently writing for British television . . . and it would be so hard to get around him, he took up so much space. I’d ask him to sit on a chair so I could cook or get to a baby and he would sit, but then he’d spring back up again to reoccupy the middle of the room.
Stott writes about her father with sympathy, love, exasperation, sometimes anger he richly deserved. She makes him “spring back up,” brings him vividly to life on the page. But she also gets around him. This is her story, in the end, and she puts him in his place in her own life. A central place, but not a dominating one.
PopSugar Challenge: Book with a weather element in the title. Plus Stott mentions, unsurprisingly, Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, a memoir of growing up in the 19th century Plymouth Brethren. I’ve meant to read that for years, so I think I’ll use it for the book mentioned in another book category.